High school freshman Bela Reyes-Klein said she was overwhelmed with pride when she found out that she and her fellow teenage engineers from Galena High School in Reno, Nev., were one of five groups to win the national Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest. The competition, designed to encourage students and teachers throughout the country to use STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) projects to solve problems facing their communities, announced the five winning schools in April. On April 29, students and teachers from the winning schools – which won a combined $2 million — will attend an awards luncheon in Washington, D.C.
How did Reyes-Klein feel when she heard the news?
“‘Incredible’ is definitely the word,” she told FoxNews.com. “It’s really amazing. Oh my gosh, I just felt this kind of pride. It’s like when you get an ‘A’ on something you work hard for – everyone who worked on this poured their hearts and souls into this project, and you see these kids work so hard. It’s just really amazing. It’s really amazing to feel you have done something this big.”
The students’ project looked to make day-to-day life easier for a specific subset of their school’s population. Starting at the beginning of the school year, the team – mentored by engineering teacher Tom Larsen – used 3D printing technology to create “adaptive mobility equipment” that could be used by two students in their school with special needs. Kenny and Hunter, the two students, use wheelchairs and experience some motor skill limitations. Hunter has difficulty typing, while Kenny has weak hand strength, which makes it hard for him to carry items on his flimsy wheelchair tray. To address these needs, Reyes-Klein and her classmates designed a prototype of a portable 3D-printed keyboard frame that could make it easier for Hunter to type. For Kenny, the students developed an articulating tray table from a side-resting position that makes it easier for him to carry items while sitting in his wheelchair.
Larsen told FoxNews.com that the students began to brainstorm ways their submission to the contest could address issues faced by the “large population of a variety of special needs kids in our school and the community at large.”
It’s been a long path for the five winning schools. They were part of 3,100 schools that submitted entries to the competition. Eventually that number was whittled down to 255 state finalists (including Washington, D.C.), and from there a winner from each state was chosen before 15 schools headed to New York City’s Intrepid Air & Space Museum in March where they presented their projects in front of a panel of judges.
“Focusing on STEM is a real passion point for us – we want these kids to go on and pursue these careers, to innovate and discover,” Bree Falato, manager of the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow program told FoxNews.com.
For Madison Heeter, a junior at the Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy in Erie, Pennsylvania, finding out that her school won didn’t “seem real at first.”
She said her teacher, James Fleming, texted her the news and she “screamed.”
Like the Galena project, the one that Heeter and her classmates developed addressed the needs of some of the most vulnerable members of her school’s greater community. More than 80 percent of students in the Erie Public School district qualify for free and reduced lunch. Additionally, the greater Erie metropolitan area contains a large refugee population. For many of the students – some the children of refugees – the meals available to them at school are the most nutritious they’ll receive all day. How to address this problem? The students determined that creating a vertical farming system , which is an urban-friendly method of farming that is what it sounds like – cultivating vegetation on a vertically inclined surface — to bring fresh food to as many students as possible.
Fleming said that the students started small-scale, drafting ideas and surfaces on which plants could be grown. Given that most of the project was devised during the winter months, Fleming and Heeter asserted that they plan on taking the vertical farming idea further as the warmer weather approaches.
“We’re just high schoolers, but to be able to make a change in our community is just an awesome feeling,” Heeter added.
For Heeter, the realities faced by many of the families in her community became clearer after her mother was diagnosed with cancer. With her parents traveling back and forth for doctor appointments and hospital visits, Heeter said that she would take on grocery shopping duties, which put in perspective just how “much those groceries cost.”
She added that this personal dimension of the project – understanding how engineering skills can be used to make direct impact on communities – inspired her to aspire to enter the engineering field after high school.
“There are only four girls in my class, three of us are juniors,” Heeter said. “Working on this really gave me an outlook on the power of women in engineering. It really got me to think of what role I could play in this.”
The student team from Downtown College Prep in San Jose, Calif. took on one of the biggest struggles currently facing people in their state at large – drought. The students, led by teacher Luis Ruelas, developed a “grey water system” aimed at reducing water consumption by 20 percent in single family homes. The project suggests ways households can recycle water from washing machines and shower systems and use it for garden irrigation, for instance.
“We brainstormed a lot of ideas, but chose this one because it looked at the biggest problem in California right now,” said Sebastian Aguilar, a freshman at the school. “It’s all over the news. My family stopped using as much water, because the county mandated a 10 percent water use reduction. Everyone has to adapt.”
Ruelas told FoxNews.com that it was an exciting moment for the school’s entire team to attend the Intrepid event. Many of the students like Aguilar had never been to New York before, and to be able to present their work in front of a panel of STEM professionals was “very rewarding.”
“For me, I don’t want our project to be over now that the competition is done,” Aguilar added. “We want to help California as a whole.”
For Falato, the contest is most impactful in its ability to encourage students from all walks of life, education, and economic backgrounds to develop a passion for STEM. She said that while some students who participate might already have an interest in science and be on track to attend an elite university or go on as researchers or engineers, there are many who might never have considered a STEM career a possibility without the contest.
“This is a program for everyone,” she said. “These students are not necessarily memorizing facts for a test. They are looking at ways to address real-life plights facing the world. It’s important to get them excited about STEM to get them more involved.”